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Tropical forest regeneration project uses 12 000 orange peels to achieve regeneration goals

Credits : Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, University of Pennsylvania

An abandoned and forgotten about conservation project to encourage forest regeneration dating back to the nighties, has finally achieved a surprising victory almost two decades later.  

In the mid-1990s, Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, two ecologists from the University of Pennsylvania, teamed up with local orange juice producer Del Oro in Costa Rica to try to regenerate infertile grazing lands. Their plan was to dump thousand of trailers filled with orange peel onto sterile pastures to encourage forest regeneration. They wanted to highlight how agricultural waste could be used to regenerate forests. However, unfortunately, everything did not go as planned or at least at the time.

A few months in the project was abandoned after having been rejected by a competitor, TicoFruit, who argued that Del Ora had “made a mess of ” the soil. Despite the project being abandoned, the orange peel waste was never cleared.  Over the years that followed Mother Nature ran her course.  The deluge of nutrient-rich organic waste must have had an almost instantaneous effect on the land. Sixteen years later the now fertilized, formally barren grazing land have given way to a thriving tropical forest.

A team headed by Timothy Treuer and Jonathan Choi, researchers from Princeton University, recently analysed a three hectare plot of the forest. “It was so overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the bright yellow lettering on the two-metre long sign which marked the site that was only a few meters from the road,” explained Mr Treuer.  After taking soil samples, the two researchers attempted to determine to what extent the orange peelings had influenced the growth of vegetation. They compared their samples with samples taken from a nearby pasture which was not fertilized with orange peel.

Credits : Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, University of Pennsylvania
Unsurprisingly, the results published in the journal Restoration Ecology suggest that the area fertilized by orange peel waste had richer soil, a higher tree biodiversity (in terms of the biomass and variety of species) and a greater forest canopy closure. It appears that the orange peel waste deposits also significantly increased macro-nutrient and micro-nutrient levels in the soil.   The incredible results of this forest regeneration still remains partly mysterious for researchers and further research needs to be carried to provide more detailed answers.  Nevertheless researchers hope that the remarkable success of this abandoned project will inspire other similar conservation projects. David Wilcove, co-author of the study and professor of biology at the Princeton Environmental Institute, suggests, for example, that we could “use the “leftovers”of industrial food production to regenerate tropical forests.
Although a third of food is wasted worldwide, large quantities of plant waste could actually contribute to enriching and fertilizing production fields and at no extra cost to companies.  This makes all the more sense seeing as the victory is twofold.  In addition to being a solution for waste treatment and a effective solution to regenerate arid lands, richer forests trap more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which means that plots of land fertilized with plant waste could, in the end, help save the planet.


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